Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011


newport small Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011There is something truly indelible about George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival. You walk the grounds and you walk through history; my father walked these Newport streets in 1965 to hear Bob Dylan plug in (the venue was different, but the streets were the same). The main stage looks out from Fort Adams State Park at the Pell Bridge stretching over glistening Newport Harbor with its fleet of sailboats, kayaks, and yachts, perfection in the setting sun. There’s a feeling of ultimate unity – ultimate folkness – between audience and artist, both sharing in the warm knowledge that this weekend will be scrawled in the ledger of music history.

This year had particular significance. Narrowly avoiding cancellation when sponsors walked away from the 2009 50th anniversary celebration (the number is a bit disingenuous; the festival took a hiatus between 1971 and 1985), the festival returned to non-profit status this year under the Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. banner. In addition, now in its “52nd” year, the festival experienced its first-ever complete sellout. 10,000 hungry folk fans took the water taxi across the harbor or wound around Harrison Avenue to attend each day.

Under nearly cloudless blue skies and despite the cruel heat doing its best to boil the good out of you, the venue really seemed to bring the best out of everyone. Whether contemporary risers or established legends, musicians brought their finest to the Fort. They couldn’t escape the magic of the place, love and passion flowing through every note sung or strummed. Covers and cameos were standard, tributes to music’s past, present and future.

The crowd’s appreciation and respect weren’t reserved for the performers, though it surely washed over them in waves. I’ve never seen a venue left cleaner at the end of the day, nor so many smiles and hugs shared by complete strangers – I myself partook in more than a few. Despite the odd segregation of the split main (Fort) stage crowd, with its square standing section on the right roped-off from the sea of beach chairs and blankets on the left, the sold-out crowd commingled as much as the bands. Indie-leaning youth danced with old-fashioned maturity to Emmylou Harris and Delta Spirit alike.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

And there was still so much I missed. I’ve heard tales of Trampled by Turtles doing incredible things on the Quad Stage (I caught their encore cover of “Where Is My Mind?”), and The Devil Makes Three was a highlight for many. The story of John McCauley leading a score of artists through an amalgamation of “Goodnight Irene”, “La Bamba”, “Twist & Shout”, and “I Wanna Be Sedated” at the Backstage Benefit BBQ on Saturday night is already mythical. I never even made it to the newly added Lego DUPLO Kid’s Stage.

Yet it doesn’t bother me. The festival provided more than a fair share of fulfilling experiences. As Taylor Goldsmith said amidst Middle Brother’s set, “It’s not about what’s new or what’s different – it’s about what’s good, and folk music.” There was plenty of both to go around, and anyone in attendance should feel lucky to have witnessed what they did. I know I do.

-Benjamin Kaye
News Writer

Saturday, July 30th

PS22 Chorus – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 11:30 a.m.

ps22 chorus 2 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

Photo by Nate Slevin

When people say the festival is getting younger, they’re usually referring to the audience, not the musicians. The inverse was true as the first notes of 2011 came from the voices of some of the youngest performers ever to take a Newport stage: a group of 11-to-12-year-olds from Staten Island. The PS 22 Chorus, an ever-graduating group of youth led by one Mr. B on keyboard, performed strong renditions of songs the typical middle-schooler wouldn’t even recognize. The audience was enthralled by the kiddy karaoke. Opener “Energy” by Austra roused true emotion, Mr. B pointing to one crowd member and ribbing, “No crying. I see you.” Soloists shined, like Roseli confidently tackling Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”, generating applause at every big note. Of course, they’re still just kids, often looking like another bored choir practice, some lazily half-doing hand choreography or omitting it entirely. But by the time they closed with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the crowd was on its feet, showing the blooming performers a lot of love. Hopefully, some of these kids keep it up after graduation, because there’s certainly something special in the mix here.

Wailin’ Jennys – Fort Stage – 11:40 a.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

I initially had no intention of catching Wailin’ Jennys‘ set, but after hearing them do a stirring soundcheck of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, I wanted more of those lush harmonies. The trio of ladies didn’t disappoint, providing warm, perfectly keyed notes to the first main stage crowd of the festival. They also proved to be not just great vocalists but great performers, passing instruments back and forth between songs and telling tales to the obliging audience. Before gutsily covering headliner Emmylou Harris’s “Deeper Well”, Nicky Mehta told of how she mixed parenting and practice by playing for her twin boys in their Johnny Jump Ups, the bouncing babies acting as a barometer for a song’s success. “This next song is a winner for them, inspired much height in the bouncing,” she said. “Occasional impact.” Helped out by the fierce viola of a “male Jenny”, band member Ruth Moody’s brother Richard, the group played a sweet set of resplendent folk tunes, dropping a fair amount of reverential covers amongst their own catalog.

Typhoon – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 12:35 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

By noon, it was so hot that you would sweat sitting still, so I was relieved to find seating up front under the tent for the indie musical storm of Typhoon. After forming a hands-in pep-circle onstage as they were introduced, 13 band members took up 13 instruments and went into a cacophonous rendition of “White Lies”. At first the sound was overwhelming, but once it leveled out, the performance was commanding. Kyle Morton led the collective with a powerful voice and confidence that added miles to his stature. Songs like “The Honest Truth” and new number “The Common Sentiment” took full advantage of the mighty orchestration such a large band can bring to a performance when properly utilized. As the final notes of the last song faded, they realized they had more time, and without a word, they all jumped into “Down, Cowboy” with a boisterous breakdown befitting their name. Adding to the enumerable reasons this band separates from the congested Northwest indie-folk scene, I’m pretty sure they’re the only group around that could give emotional resonance to a refrain of the words “kitchen tile.”

Freelance Whales – Quad Stage – 1:40 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Yes, Freelance Whales have many “folk” instruments in their arsenal, and many of their songs distinctly tilt in that direction. Still, while their synth-pop sounds were more evidence of Newport’s modern proclivities, something didn’t settle in properly at their set. “Elevator, First Floor” (which they later encored at the LEGO Duplo Kid’s Stage with the PS22 Chorus) rang true enough, but others, like “Kilojoules”, felt out of place and, worse, just strange. Part of this is the band’s seeming inability to reproduce live some of the more complicated vocal layers of their debut, Weathervanes. One of that album’s standouts, “Starring”, came off as haphazard, off-timed, and all around weak. This young, buzzing band has some work to do before they come together as a live unit.

Gogol Bordello
Fort Stage 2:00 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

“I warn you, this band is not for the faint of heart” was the introduction given to one of the most anomalous bands on the lineup, Gogol Bordello. The stage was sparse for a Gogol set: Only five members of the normally nine-piece band sat on chairs. No chair can hold what this band brings, though, even in acoustic form. Frontman Eugene Hütz was up on his feet by the second number, “Wanderlust King”, and shirtless by “Tribal Connection”. They didn’t bound about stage like they would at a plugged-in show or even at other unplugged shows they’ve played. Instead, the set showed respectful understanding of the setting. Their energy remained high, playing their hearts out for what at times felt like a private concert for the packed dance section. “I’m sorry, people over here,” Hütz addressed the lawn chair and blanket crowd on the left. “This music is not really for laying down type of purposes.” After a set consisting of hits from their wealthy repertoire plus new track “General Amnesty”, even the older crowd was out of their chairs and swaying about. “They’re getting the message,” Hütz said. We all did by the end: No matter the venue, these guys put on an incredible show.

Delta Spirit
Quad Stage 2:55 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

A packed Quad proved I wasn’t the only one anticipating a killer set from Matthew Vasquez and his Long Beach crew, aka Delta Spirit, and it’s safe to say no one left disappointed. “Come on, you can get up!” Vasquez beckoned as they took the stage, and within half a second every chair was vacated. The band ripped through “Bushwick Blues”, “White Table”, and even furiously tore down the end of “Ransom Man”. Their fans loved them through and through, dancing about and singing to every song from “St. Francis” to older numbers like “People C’mon”, though there were understandably no crowd vocals for new track “Empty House”. The love was returned with an earnest, impassioned performance song after song. While Vasquez has mesmerizing energy as a frontman, guitarist William McLaren plays his axe to bits, and Jon Jameson is one of the most fun-to-watch bassists I’ve seen in a while, multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich may be the unsung hero of the group, bouncing between keys and percussion even in the middle of songs. Together, the band provided one of the brightest highlights of the weekend.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Tegan and Sara Quad Stage 4:25 p.m.

Given an acoustic set, Tegan and Sara had a chance to let their folk-side shine, but it was a show that might not have panned out as they’d hoped. Though they played hits like “Back Into Your Head” and “Nineteen”, a lot of it sounded similar in the stripped-down setting. Slipups and restarts were near constants; Sara stopped “Alligator” abruptly saying, “I fucked up, that’s me, that’s on me.” But what kept the show from awkward nonsuccess was the constant banter. “No? Not again?” Sara asked her sister. “Yeah, no, do it again,” Tegan quipped back. “Do it by yourself, in fact.” Despite the flaws, the packed Quad loved it, prompting Sara to satirically remark, “It’s so hard to start a song when everyone keeps yelling that they love you.” It wasn’t a standout set, but the intimacy they created with their adoring audience was commendable. As was Tegan’s time spent signing every article fans threw over the backstage fence. Their fans honestly love them, and it’s nice to see that love returned with equal sincerity.

Mavis Staples Quad Stage 5:35 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Full disclosure: I wasn’t actually at most of this set. I walked by, planning on just catching a song before moving on. Then Ms. Staples announced a special guest, and out came The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and this happened. It was one of those great moments that only happens at Newport, and watching the 72-year-old Staples literally punch out the end of “The Weight” till she was breathless was inspiring. After the song, Meloy wished Staples a happy birthday (it was July 10th) and gave her a warm hug before heading off to his own headlining set.

The Decemberists Fort Stage 6:05 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

With a new number-one record nestled firmly in folk stylings, The Decemberists were poised for a triumphant return to Newport, this time as headliners. Colin Meloy led his troupe onstage with a glass of wine held high to the applauding crowd. “Some of you look like you may be over-folked,” he remarked on the sunbaked lot. “But for those of you who are under-folked, we will try to folk you right now.” The joke garnered as many groans as laughs and set the stage for what I’ve come to expect is a typical Decemberists outing.

As always, the music sounded fine–great, even. These guys can play exquisitely, there’s no doubt. The setlist was nothing unexpected, relying heavily on The King Is Dead tracks like “Rise to Me” and “Rox in the Box”. They did sneak Meloy’s purposefully dreadful “Dracula’s Daughter” into the middle of “O Valencia!” but quickly abandoned it. “That was a bad detour,” Meloy laughed slightly. “Forget it.” The biggest problem here is that while everything sounds wonderful, it doesn’t sound like a great live show. Little is unpredictable, and nothing really pops with stage presence. “The Rake’s Song” came close with its powerful drumming and refrain and Meloy managing to get just the seated section to clap along was amusing. “Won’t Want for Love” also showed signs of life, but while Sara Watkins has settled into her role standing in for the ailing (and much missed) Jenny Conlee, her voice lacked the haunting quality that makes the track so affecting, and Meloy’s voice doesn’t play off hers as well.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

For the second time this summer, I walked away from a Decemberists show with more memories of their repartee than their songs. Meloy dedicating “This Is Why We Fight” to festival founders Pete Seeger and George Wein for “teaching us that the ‘S’ word, socialism, isn’t a bad word and that we’re all in this together.” Calling “The Soldiering Life” a song about “homoerotic love between sailors” and dedicating it to “that flotilla of yachts over there. Hope you’re having fun and keeping the rosé chilled, because Lord knows mine isn’t.” The stage-farce that was closer “The Mariner’s Revenge”, complete with Chris Funk climbing down the stage rigging to get that one woman who wasn’t doing the moaning and groaning of being devoured by a whale to stand up and go “argh.” While Gillian Welch and David Rawlings coming out for an encore of “All Arise!” and “June Hymn” was a delight, even that was predictable and overshadowed by the tongue-in-cheek performance. In truth, this talented band shines in their humor, and it was an altogether fun show. However, I expect something more than sit-com entertainment from a live show, especially a headlining one in front of a sold-out festival crowd. Entertain me, sure, but put some energy into more than just cheekiness.

Sunday, July 31st

David Wax Museum Fort Stage 11:40 a.m.

david wax museum 9 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

Photo by Nate Slevin

A year after winning a spot on the festival’s smallest stage, David Wax Museum was opening the main stage on Sunday. The band owned the promotion with a truly rousing set of their particular blend of Mexo-Americana. David Wax was a The Warriors look-alike with his red bandana and vest, hunched over his guitar like he was protecting the sound during “Look What You’ve Done to Me” with guest vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Suze Slezak was charming and elegant in her specially designed Lily Brush dress, even as she stomped about, creating unique vibrating and ratcheting sounds by playing, of all things, a donkey jawbone on “Yes, Maria, Yes” and “Chuchumbe” (roughly translated as “belly button”). As Wax explained, it’s a song rediscovered in archives 20 years ago after being banned by the Church in Mexico for inciting belly-to-belly dancing. The duo showed endless appreciation for their strong horn section and dancing percussionist Julia del Palacio, eliciting applause at every solo. Both smiled ceaselessly, and their sheer joy was contagious. “Can you feel what an honor it is for us to be here?” Slezak asked. Yes, the crowd answered, and it’s an honor to have you.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Mountain Man Alex and Ani Harbor Stage 12:30 p.m.

Where the Wailin’ Jennys impress with musicianship as well as vocals, Mountain Man are all about harmony. True, those harmonies are damn near perfect, but with nothing else but a subtle guitar, the show is far less interesting. The trio of ladies still haunted with their vocals on the likes of “Mouthwings” and the Kate Bush cover “Rivers of Babylon”. What was most surprising about the serious-sounding group is that they’re kind of dorks, though maybe the ironic band name should’ve given that away. Amelia Meath told a story of dreaming she was in love with and spooning Marilyn Manson. After one song, they remarked how sometimes howling like wolves was a suitable replacement for applause. The next song, which Amelia explained was a cover of someone she’d met online (“I’ve never met anyone on the Internet,” said Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. “You’ve never played World of Warcraft,” Meath replied), received a chorus of howls from the crowd. “This is great,” Meath said through laughter and baying. “We sound totally insane!” They sort of did, but when they were singing, they also sounded downright bewitching.

Cave Singers Alex and Ani Harbor Stage 1:40 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Pete Quirk doesn’t look like a lead singer. With his trucker hat, tank top, and full beard, he looked more like the roadie behind the wheel of the equipment truck. Then he gave a holler before the first notes of “At the Cut” came out in his distinctively pinched voice, and you couldn’t picture him behind anything but a mic, even if it was sometimes hard to pick out lyrics. His neck vanes popped like Macho Man Randy Savage during “Beach House”, stark proof of how much he was putting into the performance. He couldn’t have a more appropriate name than “Quirk”, with his constant blinking, head scratching, and jerky hand gestures. Seated, guitarist Derek Fudesco rocked back and forth like he was having a musical fit, and the sound he created with drummer Marty Lund was rowdier than many larger bands could muster. Straightforward and hard, when they were told they had 10 more minutes left, Quirk panted, “We’re done.” They ended early, but they left a lot of sweat and a great set behind them.

Amos Lee Fort Stage 3:25 p.m.

There was no introduction to Amos Lee as he took the stage–just the first notes of the title track to Mission Bell, gentle and subtle like the man himself. Chatter was minimal, though he echoed a sentiment many other acts shared about the strange crowd setup: “The beach chair people, while I know you’re enjoying it, it’s just a very strange thing to look at.” Seated or not, his voice demanded the fullest attention of the Fort Stage crowd, heartfelt and pure as it poured out through the thick air. A well-constructed set found him grouping rockier and bluesier songs like a slightly faster take on “Truth” and “Low Down Life” between soulful numbers like “Loose Tight” and “The Wind”. What it boils down to with Lee, as always, is that he can sing the hell out of a song. His voice is just undeniable, and when he was helped out by Secret Sisters on “Clear Blue Eyes”, it was even better.

Middle Brother/Dawes Quad Stage 4:20 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Another Matthew Vasquez set, another massive highlight. There’s not enough space to detail how truly awesome this set was. A notification sent through the festival’s app said it best: “If you’re not @Middle_Brother, you should be.” No band had more fun on stage the whole weekend than they did: Vasquez, his garb far less formal than the previous day, bounding about, sharing his mic with his bandmates during “Someday”; Taylor Goldsmith getting the crowd to sing on “Thanks for Nothing” and the bloodiest, gutsiest rendition of “Blood and Guts”; John McCauley sharing the stage with Mountain Man for “Daydreaming”, the girls visibly touched by the large, sublime harmonies provided by the crowd. “We haven’t even practiced!” Vasquez whooped at one point. “We haven’t even seen each other since North Carolina!” They had every right to be impressed with themselves. No band played as hard as they did that weekend, and no crowd was more responsive, hands constantly up, voices ringing out, bodies moving.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

While I missed a Jonny Corndawg appearance (the honorary fourth middle brother), a text from my trusty photographer Nate had me rushing from Elvis Costello to catch an impromptu set by Goldsmith’s other band, Dawes. The mini-set opened with “Fire Away” and closed with “When My Time Comes”. For the latter number, the other brothers returned to take a few verses, appearing equally as enamored with their bandmate’s music as their own. One of the most lasting moments of the festival came when McCauley held his mic stand out over the crowd, the music cut away, and the Quad was reduced to rubble by the hundreds of voices belting the final chorus. Magic, plain and simple.

Elvis Costello Fort Stage 4:45 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

While it was hard to split time between a legend and a supergroup whose time together may well be limited, I somehow found a way to catch the majority of both sets. Billed as a solo, acoustic set, it was a welcome surprise to turn the corner and find Elvis Costello backed by The Impostors, though their presence could have been the result of his voice being too weak to hold the Fort down alone. He had a lot more help, though, as Secret Sisters came out for “A Slow Drag With Josephine” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?”. Chris Thile appeared on mandolin for “Brilliant Mistake” and stuck around for the next number, too, as Costello giddily proclaimed, “Please welcome to the stage–I always like saying this–Ms. Emmylou Harris.” Applause resounded as the headliner entered for “Scarlet Tide”, and on the eve of a debt crisis, the line “No more money left to spend” was especially poignant.

Closing with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was equally fitting and a spirited way to finish his set. Steve Nieve worked the theremin, possibly a first for the festival, like a magician, awing many. Saying how pleased they were to end their tour at Newport, Costello remarked, “You know you’ve come to the right place when you’re standing side-stage behind Pete Seeger watching Wanda Jackson.” Newport was even happier to have them, and for the first time the chair and blanket crowd was mostly on their feet. In fact, many of them stayed that way and walked towards the exits when Costello left the stage. While his voice was clearly fatigued, he never let up once, a showman to the end, and a headliner in many hearts.

M. Ward
Quad Stage 5:40 p.m.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Simple and cool, M. Ward started his set solo. Most of his time was spent making gorgeous tones come from his acoustic guitar, like slowing down “Chinese Translation” and making it pretty as hell. On two occasions he sat at a piano, his posture like he was playing a dive bar, to perform some covers. First was David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, almost unrecognizable as a near ballad. The second was of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist”, the lyrics of which Ward delivered with such a faux-deadpan expression and mocking tone that chuckles speckled the audience. Immediately after that, the mood shifted entirely as Dawes provided rocking back up for the remainder of the set, including a ridiculously fun delivery of “Roll Over Beethoven”. After an encore of “Ferry Boat”, Secret Sisters came out for “Something Stupid”, putting two of the most cameoed bands on one stage with the great Mr. Ward–a perfect way to close the Quad on the final day.

Emmylou Harris
Fort Stage 6:05 p.m.

Though many left the Fort after Costello had finished, the remaining folks packed the main stage area full for the monument of grace that is Emmylou Harris. With her silvery white hair kept from her eyes with a black headband, a black leather bracelet, and a flowing black dress with white pill-stripes, she was a half step away from punk. At 64 years old, she stood tall and confident in the setting summer sun, glorious and classic all at once. When she introduced “The Road”, the ever-present sadness at the loss of her late mentor and partner Graham Parsons could be felt in the quivers of her voice. After “Get Up John” and some spot on a cappella harmonizing with her band for “Calling My Children Home”, she returned to some melancholy. “Okay,” she said, “I gotta get back to the sad stuff before people think I’ve been taken over by some jovial person.” It wasn’t her own sorrow that came next, but Steve Earle’s in the form of “Goodbye”.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

A gentle country set isn’t exactly my cup of tea as a headliner, but Ms. Harris still did an applaudable job in the spot. It was the very essence of the modern Newport Folk Festival to see so many people, varied greatly in age, race, and background, shuffling their feet and swinging their arms to tunes like “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”. Present and past sensibilities met onstage, as well, when the duo of The Civil Wars came out for Harris’s encore (well, she called it an encore, but she never actually left the stage). Dancing happily and singing for “Evangeline”, Joy Williams looked pleased as could be to be sharing the legendary Newport Fort stage with the equally legendary Harris.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

That was it for Harris’s set, but the true closer of the festivities was something even grander. Out walked Pete Seeger, the eternal Newport icon, even at 92, guitar in hand. Then Middle Brother and Dawes walked out with Jonny Corndawg and Mountain Man. The Secret Sisters returned, David Wax Museum led out Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Brown Bird and M. Ward joined Emmylou Harris and The Civil Wars–a truly impressive array of artists. Even festival founder George Wein stepped onto the stage. As the crowd gathered closer to lend their voices, Seeger led the bevy of talent in “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. When he slung on his banjo, even the musicians on stage applauded and smiled. Calling out the lyrics for the unaware, Seeger paced us all through “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”. It was felicitous, moving, and immutably beautiful. It was the Newport Folk Festival summed up in a single, neatly wrapped performance.

Photography by Nate Slevin.

The Culture of Newport Folk Festival

Gallery by Nate Slevin

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